Choosing job references

Choosing references is a bigger decision than you might think, and it’s one you should think about early in your job search strategy. Employers and recruiters will expect you to have prepared references.


The key is to find people who regard you highly, are enthusiastic supporters and can provide specific examples of your strengths and skills in action. Find at least three references. An employer probably won’t ask for more, but if you have people who can speak to your different strengths and skill sets, or how you work in different contexts, you can choose the ones best suited for the opportunity. Also, not all of your references may be available when you need them, so it’s reassuring to have alternatives. Who will be on your dream team?


  • Former managers and bosses: These are the obvious people to consider, since you reported directly to them, and a lack of supervisors on your reference list might raise questions about your past work performance. Choose someone who can give examples of how you excelled in your role. Don’t include anyone who wouldn’t wholeheartedly endorse you, or with whom you parted on less-than-ideal terms. A recruiter or hiring manager will understand if you don’t include your current boss, since you’re probably job-hunting without their knowledge. You could, however, offer to request a reference from your boss if the target company makes you a job offer.


  • Colleagues, co-workers and classmates: Look for people who can attest to your strengths and skills on the job or, if you’re asking a peer at Rotman, your contribution to group projects, presentations, etc. If you have any contacts working at your target companies, they could be impactful references; use your judgment as to whether or not they know you will enough to sing your praises.


  • Networking and other contacts: These are people you haven’t worked for or with who can talk about your character and your achievements in other areas. Think: mentors; people you’ve volunteered with; community leaders; leaders from your past (say, school clubs or youth groups); former professors, academic advisors, teachers and guidance counsellors; extracurricular instructors; or family members and friends you’ve done projects for.


How to prepare your references


Once you’ve confirmed that someone is willing to be a reference, help them figure out what to say when an employer calls. This helps them better represent you, and it helps you control the message.


  • Tell your references about your career goals and the job(s) and companies you’re targeting, and why your skills, strengths and experience make you a good fit.
  • Provide a short profile of yourself plus “speaking notes” tailored to the individual. Ideally, they’ll be able to discuss specific examples of your skills, achievements, work ethic, etc. You can also provide your resume.
  • Explain what you think employers will want to know about you, and any concerns you have about your chances of getting hired (for example, a lack of experience in certain areas).
  • Thank your references and offer to return the favour, should they ever need your enthusiastic endorsement!